Indus Passage: Bicycling the Karakoram Highway.

Pakistani drivers proudly display their rolling art work. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

“We are mujahidin,” he said proudly, attempting to answer the question he saw forming on my lips. I was in the Northern Pakistan town of Abbottabad, about one hundred kilometers from the start of my bicycle journey in the country’s made-to-order capital, Islamabad. It was the Muslim festival of Eid-ul-Azha and before me stood a dozen smiling Afghanis, veterans of the war with the former Soviet Union. They were all giddy with excitement because this was the Feast of Sacrifice; a time when expectant children thought of gifts and unsuspecting livestock were literally dressed to kill. Decorated with ribbons and bows, they would be paraded around town, and then slaughtered to provide a sumptuous meal to be shared with relatives and the less fortunate.

Amid the myriad questions concerning “what name your good country?” and “you have wife, yes?”, I spied a member of the group who was red-haired, blue-eyed and noticeably light-skinned. Could this be an example of one of the descendants of Alexander the Great’s mutinous generals? Back in 326 B.C., Alexander of Macedonia’s progress into Asia halted somewhere up the Indus Valley. To this day, rumours persist about the light eyed, light-haired, fair-skinned descendants of the troops who remained behind, opting out of the long journey home to the Mediterranean. Now, here I was in Pakistan’s Northern Areas, facing a blinding Cheshire cat smile, and perhaps staring history in the face.

“He is Russian. Everyone else in his brigade was killed and now he is one of us, our brother!” the leader of the group, a man named Samiullah, pointed out. My gaze stood fixed on the young man’s genuine smile.

The war in Afghanistan ended in 1989. So, if like many of the conscripts for that war he was a teenager at its start, today, he would be in his early twenties, or mid twenties at most. Sure enough, he had become one of them. Dressed in the traditional shalwar qamiz, complete with pillbox cap, he resembled the former freedom fighters. Now, according to his address, he lived in a numbered shack, on a numbered street, just like many of the nearly one million Afghan refugees who made the U.N.’s mission in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province their home.

He seemed happy enough. But I couldn’t help but wonder if his family and friends knew that he was alive? Had he experienced the sympathy for his captors that many hostages and prisoners feel? Did he join them and convert to Islam willingly? Could he return home if he wished? Did he miss ice hockey?

Such were my thoughts as I continued on my 1200 kilometer bicycle odyssey along the Karakoram Highway. A trade route and conduit into the heart of central Asia long before China and Pakistan consummated their political marriage of convenience, this ribbon of often broken and crumbling pavement, a branch of the ancient Silk Road, had always kept a separate identity from the countries which laid claim to its path.

The fertile and traffic congested plains of the Punjab soon gave way to upland plateaus rife with rice paddies, distant 4000 meter peaks and beautiful cascading streams traversed by makeshift cable cars. Eventually, I entered the searing moonscape that was Indus-Kohistan; an area that earned its lawless reputation back in the days of the British Raj. At a time when imperialist Russia and Britain jockeyed for position in the navel of the world in a contest known as the Great Game, British red-coats were quite happy to leave the cunning and ruthless Kohistani tribesmen alone. They knew full well that the locals provided as good a barrier to Czarist Russia’s expansionist intentions as the stiletto spires of the Karakoram Range or the relentless earthen folds of the Hindu Kush.

As I pedalled down the road, towns like Besham, Pattan and Dasu seemed more like roadside bazaars. Stalls sold all manner of wares and in one instance, the sign of a small hotel proclaimed the arrival of “the latest, high-powered flosh system!” Hustle and bustle were the norm. But these towns were few and relatively far between. Overall, the surrounding landscape was harsh and somewhat depressing.

The Karakoram Highway snakes its way toward the Hunza Valley. Bridge crossing the Hunza River near Minapin, Nagar. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

The highway hugged the sides of the steep Indus River gorge, dancing back and forth on Chinese built bridges that spawned transport hubs and towns in their own right. The region was arid and rock-laden except for some terraced agriculture, possible only through irrigation. It was spring and the Indus River raged. Its grey-brown, silt laden water became my companion and guide in much the same way it helped escort Buddhism into China and Tibet, and Islam into Central Asia centuries before.

Other than the river, police check posts provided the only continuity in my day. Stationed at regular intervals along the highway and manned by members of the Frontier Constabulary, these posts represented the extent of law and government influence in the Northern Areas. Once off the highway, tribal law reigned supreme, just as it had for countless generations. All foreigners were obliged to sign in and I was always astonished by the list of dignitaries that were supposedly only days in front of me. There were English football stars, Australian film celebrities, and of course Elvis. Hillary Clinton was even on her way to Gilgit, apparently with a German travelling companion named Klaus.

A child spice seller, Gilgit, Northern Areas, Pakistan. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

A child spice seller, Gilgit, Northern Areas, Pakistan. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

“Motorcycle tube, uh, tire? Pump? Do you have? No, not like your bicycle. My bicycle tire is like motorcycle tire. Do you have pump?”

Gilgit was the largest town in the Northern Areas and home to the region’s administration as well as a large Pakistani Army base. At the time, I was trying to replace some “lost” tent poles, a tripod and most importantly, a bicycle pump. It took a couple of days of searching the almost identical storefronts in town before I found anything close to suitable as replacements.

The often frustrating search did allow me time to explore and get to know a few of my fellow travellers at the simple but friendly Madina Guesthouse. There was an Englishman on a two-year motorcycle journey from Australia to London, a German couple who commuted between home and the Indian subcontinent annually, and another German who resembled Jesus, had bought a donkey in the Chitral Valley, ridden some 400 kilometers to Gilgit via the Shandur Pass, and was now depressed at the thought of having to sell the animal. Rounding out the group were a Kiwi couple, two Americans and three more adventurous British lads who hoped to buy a camel in Tajikistan and travel overland to Tashkent in Uzbekistan, avoiding the notoriously unreliable border crossing from China into Kirghizstan.

After a busy day of organizing, searching and checking the latest information, our communal dinner usually ended with a hike up into the hills north of town. There, we sat mesmerized by the lights, the moon and the sound of barking dogs in the distance. So it was with mixed feelings that I left Gilgit. But I had a schedule to keep, always a risky thing in this part of the world.

Shortly after Gilgit, the KKH began to follow a tributary of the Indus River, the Hunza. It headed north towards China as the Indus turned sharply east toward Skardu, the staging ground for the world’s second highest peak, K2. I was off to the Hunza Valley, home to notorious bandits and caravan raiders of the past, and often thought to be the basis for the legends of the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La.

As I made my way up a secluded back road to Baltit Fort, the former palace of the ruling Mir of Hunza, Ultar Peak and Rakaposhi stood like 7000 meter sentinels on either side of the valley. Centuries old channels brought water down from upper canyons to terraces cut into the vertical rock faces. Fruit orchards, plots of wheat and corn, and stands of swaying poplars all benefitted. From a distance, this seemingly out-of-place vegetation resembled green horizontal veins across the mountainsides.

The scenery was not the only paradisiacal quality of the valley. Although I had been met with the most amazing hospitality thus far, the Ismaili people of Hunza proved to be more outwardly friendly, less suspicious than some of their Shia Muslim neighbours in Nagar. Smiles were more prevalent and even the odd child-tossed stone had a certain ambivalence, unlike the purposeful missiles I had run into earlier. With more than its share of accommodation, stalls, souvenirs and smiles, the area definitely welcomed travellers.

The road continued to gain altitude through the area known as Gojal. At a time when I thought I had seen all the amazing scenery possible, I crested a hill, rounded a sharp downhill bend and stopped dead in my tracks. Few words could have described what lay before me. Framing the town of Passu was a ridge of dagger-like spires on one side of the river, offset by some of the largest non-polar ice fields on earth.

Called Tupopdan, or “hot rock”, by the Wakhi people because of their ability to shed snow, the Cathedral Peaks, along with the Batura and Passu Glaciers, represented the yin and yang of physical geography. As it rammed into Asia, the Indian subcontinent thrust these stiletto peaks skyward. Meanwhile, the glaciers continued their bulldozer-like advance, coming down almost to the roadside. In the case of the Batura, it was responsible for a constant onslaught against the highway, as well as the destruction of one of the KKH’s original Chinese-built bridges.

Travelling by bicycle burdened me with a tighter schedule than my fellow bus travellers. So we ended up playing a game of leapfrog in which it wasn’t uncommon to catch up to people you had met earlier. In Passu, I caught up with a few of the gang from Gilgit and used the opportunity to experience some of the amazing hiking the area had to offer.

The Cathedral Peaks, Passu, Northern Areas, Pakistan. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Long parched days took us via shepherd’s trails to upland pastures and magnificent views of the glaciers. Another route provided us with a harrowing double-crossing of the Hunza River via two rickety suspension bridges, each in excess of 200 meters in length. It was difficult to decide what provided less reassurance: the tweaking and pinging of the steel cables as you stretched to reach the thin branches acting as cross members; or the sound of the raging river below, clearly visible through the huge gaps between those branches.

In the evening, the aspiring British camel jockeys would position themselves out on the flat flood plain of the river with their short-wave radio and wire, makeshift antenna. Struggling to find the perfect position for reception, they listened for the latest results from the World Cup of Football on the BBC’s World Service.

With this “modern dance for reception” being performed in its spectacular natural amphitheatre, I bid farewell to Passu and made my way to the official Pakistani border post at Sust. It was here that three French cyclists headed in the opposite direction gave me a proper bicycle pump. But it was also here that, following an evening of playing Yahtzee with the Kiwi couple from Gilgit, I would be unable to get out of bed.

The next morning, I bid good-bye to my friends as they boarded a jeep for the crossing of the Khunjerab Pass, and then spent the next two days confined to bed. Nausea and dizziness were my companions as I drank flat Coca-Cola and monitored my temperature every few hours. Eventually, I was forced to seek out the local dispensing pharmacist. Opening a simple plywood shack secured by a padlock, he gave me three pills: b-complex vitamins, a broad spectrum anti-biotic and an anti-inflammatory. Still suffering from a plugged ear and heavy congestion, I decided to store my bicycle and return to Gilgit with its lower altitude and army hospital.

“Oh yes, this belongs to our good friend from Japan. He had to return home. But, he will come back to Sust,” the young, well-spoken innkeeper assured me.

I ended up leaving my bicycle in storage at the small Mountain Refuge Hotel in Sust. The room was filled with maintenance and cleaning supplies and one badly damaged mountain bike. Apparently, it belonged to a Japanese cyclist who suffered an accident. But, he promised to return with spare parts, fix it and continue on his way at a later date.

Back in Gilgit, I returned to the friendly confines of the Madina Hotel. I did visit the ear, nose and throat specialist at the army hospital. Ironically, he prescribed three very familiar looking pills. They also turned out to be b-complex vitamins, broad-spectrum antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Feeling healthy enough to return to Sust and my bicycle after about one week, I would still spend the next month with a plugged right ear, learning to listen out of my good left ear, and dealing with the resulting feeling of imbalance for the remainder of my trip. Not until I returned to England was I diagnosed with an ear infection and given the necessary medical treatment.

Clearing Pakistani customs at Sust took much longer than arriving in the country. Detained for an hour, officials inspected and nodded approval at my video camera, water purifier and other gear. This, and the convoy of vehicles awaiting an imminent landslide that I would meet a short time later, were the only line-ups I would encounter on my entire journey.

Hoisting my loaded bicycle as best I could, I crossed the partially buried section of highway and left the idling bulldozer, jeeps and trucks to await the main event. Leaving Sust at 3100 meters, the KKH began a long sustained climb through the canyons of the Khunjerab River, arriving at the base of a set of impressive switchbacks a few hundred meters below the official pass. The ride was exhausting and I found myself questioning why I had packed some of the tools and camera equipment that made up the bulk of my one hundred pound steed. On more than one occasion, the edge of the pavement became a lounge as I stopped, lay down and drank enormous quantities of water, ready to fall asleep.

Spending the night in the final army check post at the base of the switchbacks, I awoke the next morning in what was Pakistan’s Karakoram National Park. Both China and Pakistan had established wildlife reserves here because this was the only remaining home for the Marco Polo sheep, as well as housing other endangered species like snow leopard and brown bear.

The day dawned cold, with a biting wind and alternating sleet and snow flurries. Lined with World Wildlife Organization banners, I ascended the switchbacks, counting the organization’s panda bear symbols to pass the time. My sightings were not of sheep or snow leopards, but of whistling, rust-coloured Himalayan marmots, the decomposing body of a yak, and the odd empty oil drum.

At 4730 meters, the landscape on top of the Khunjerab Pass opened up, levelling to the international boundary. Along the way, I encountered a stopped Pakistani bus with a passenger who appeared to be suffering from the effects of altitude. They asked me if I was a doctor and if I had medicine. Replying no, I suggested that if the man was in fact suffering from altitude sickness, their best recourse would be to continue on their route and its upcoming descent into China. Grudgingly, they piled back into their bus and, belching clouds of diesel exhaust, drove out of sight.

I was also looking forward to the descent. So, taking the obligatory photos at the boundary marker, I switched from riding on the left to the right hand side of the road and began to coast down hill. To my frustration, a fierce headwind prevented me from gaining any noticeable speed, and even had me pedalling on what was a very noticeable downward grade. This was possibly the most frustrating situation for a cyclist.

The new landscape was now a stark contrast to the steep angular gorges of the Karakoram. I was in the midst of the wide Pamir valleys where Marco Polo’s hungry pack animals staved off starvation and replenished themselves. To the west were the former Soviet republics, and to the east lay one of the world’s great deserts, the Takla Makan.

The wind was unrelenting and almost blew me to a complete standstill a number of times. The second most frustrating situation for a cyclist was seeing their cycling computer read speeds of one or two kilometers per hour. The vast landscape was so open that windstorms could be seen approaching from the horizon, and within minutes they would be upon you.

I road past the deserted border post at Pirali without fanfare and looked for a place to camp. Searching for a patch of green on which to pitch my tent, I found most of the pastures too marshy because of the spring melt at higher elevations. Over my shoulder, the Mintaka Pass led to a small sliver of war-torn Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor. This finger of harsh, arid land was yet another inciting example of the collision zone of international boundaries in one of the most disputed areas on earth. Here, the borders of China, Tajikistan, Kirghizstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India came within only a few hundred kilometers of each other.

Pamir Mountains, Xinjiang, China. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Happening upon the small Tajik settlement of Dabdar, a hospitable man invited me to spend the night in his family’s home. Entirely spent, I fell asleep on the beautiful woven rugs that covered the raised sitting and sleeping areas of his simple adobe style home. He woke me for a dinner of yak butter filled dumplings and deliciously sweet tea. It was all I could do to finish two from a platter piled high for my benefit. Thanking him as best I could, I drifted off into a deep sleep.

In the morning, following a hearty meal of flat bread and decidedly salty tea, I met the man’s family and a couple of neighbours. After numerous attempts at conversation, they understood that I was going to Kashgar, and I was back on my bicycle.

Tashkurghan Fort at dusk. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

A relatively short distance later I entered Tashkurghan, the first Chinese town of any size, and at a distance of 130 kilometers from the Khunjerab Pass, the official border post. The town was one long street with a few necessities like accommodation and one or two restaurants with the potential for serving food. Unfortunately, many of them did not live up to their potential.

The Chinese bureaucracy I expected never did materialize. Inside the cavernous monstrosity of a concrete hall that housed customs, I found less interest in me than was shown leaving Pakistan. As it turned out, a polite civil servant postponed his noodle lunch, and dusted off a large ancient looking ledger. After transcribing all the necessary information he wished me a safe journey and informed me that his brother also lived in Vancouver. Perhaps I knew him?

Hearing conflicting reports all through Pakistan about whether the road to Kashgar was indeed open to foreigners, I was relieved to hear that it was in fact open. Even so, I obtained a travel permit from the Public Security Bureau, knowing it would allow me to camp en route, and maybe even provide some official looking leverage at unco-operative check posts.

Pushing northward once again, the wind had abated. But, there was still another 4000 meter rise to climb in the form of the Subash Plateau. The surrounding views resembled an impressionist period painting. The round, mottled slopes of the Pamir Range seemed to blend into the sky with its flotilla of gargantuan cumulus clouds. Further below, rivers meandered across the cinder-like earth, seemingly directionless as they pooled into shallow, marshy lakes.

The deep blue waters of Kara Kul Lake preceded cycling by the hypnotic, and seemingly unending flank of Mount Kongur, one of the 7000 meter giants of the Chinese Pamir. Further along, the asphalt catapulted me down the Ghez River Canyon and, a day later, onto the oasis-like plain leading up to Kashgar.

Food was in abundance: wonderful bagel-like breads, noodles, vegetables, melons and creamy yogurt. Back in the land of plenty, I gorged myself and once again, ended up meeting people I had met along the route. We exchanged information, shared stories and made plans for the event we had all come for: the Sunday Market.

Kashgar street scene, Xinjiang, China. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Kashgar was the largest city I had encountered since Islamabad. It was an opportunity to recharge my batteries with good, plentiful food and interesting company. The Chinese government seemed to be trying its best to “modernize” Kashgar. Truly, the romanticized vision of Kashgar as a big market town was well on its way to being demolished. There were high rises, hospitals, a university and an airport. Even in the night market near the mosque, the blare of movies and music videos trumpeted from televisions hooked up to VCR’s. But one could still make out the old city walls in a few places, and see the age-old spirit of its Uyghur majority around the Id Kah mosque during the call to prayer. It was this same spirit that periodically erupted in violent demonstrations against the ruling Han Chinese minority.

Nowhere was the past more apparent than on market day. The roads leading to the main market area became a sea of donkeys, sheep, horses, camels, motorcycles, bicycles, carts, pushcarts, trucks and people. True enough, once in and amongst the stalls you saw the brightest synthetic fabric clothing, the cheapest plastic trinkets, and even inexpensive electronics. But the bulk of the market was fresh food, farm implements, and livestock. Bouquets of squawking chickens hung off the backs of bicycles and live fish gasped at the air in shallow tubs of water.

Perched on top of a small table on an edge of the stockyard, I watched a sea of humanity flow by with their sheep, goats, horses and even camels. There were Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kohistanis and Chinese. All were going about their business, much as they have done, once per week, for countless generations. Then, as quickly as it began, the Sunday Market ended. The Chernobyl of activity and diversity dissipated into the city and surrounding countryside, leaving the main areas strewn with refuse, but otherwise empty.

The stockyard at the Kashgar Sunday Market. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

The stockyard at the Kashgar Sunday Market. Photo © Mark Mauchline.

Looking back on my journey along the Karakoram Highway, I was able to draw some comparisons between it and what was arguably Asia’s most intriguing bazaar. Like the many different tribal faces seen on market day, the KKH passed through differing regions, composed of a plethora of landscapes, languages and people. It afforded incredible sights, many of which were hidden, and had to be searched out, away from the main roadway. Saturated with a dense history and sprinkled liberally with conquest and conflict, the KKH’s route proved to be as unpredictable for travel today, as it was in the age of the camel caravans. But, even more importantly, like Kashgar’s famed Sunday Market, the Karakoram Highway had an identity unto itself.

Epilogue

The Karakoram Highway traverses a portion of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier province, and many of its people are representative of other neighbouring countries in Central Asia. In consideration of the recent and ongoing events in both the United States and Afghanistan, I feel it is important to remember that this area has maintained a reputation for fierce independence for centuries. Still governed to a large extent by tribal law, the jirga system, its reputation is that of armed men and lawlessness. Coupled with this, today’s media inundates us with reports on the acts, and resulting consequences, of a predominantly foreign minority who believe in an intolerant, fanatical interpretation of Islam. Just as this contrasts with the true tenets of this tolerant religion, my memories are etched with the strength and resiliency of a people struggling to keep their traditional values and culture in an increasingly complex world. In this age of technology and wealth that we are privileged to enjoy, I recall the dignity and honour displayed by individuals living in relative poverty; individuals who showered me with warmth, courtesy and a generosity they could seemingly not afford. As a traveller, I am thankful for the opportunity to share in their spectacular part of the world.

Mark Mauchline

April 18, 2002

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